Columns

2010.12.22 Getting to the root of the issue

on . Posted in By The Way

By DAVID GREEN

While walking through town today I noticed the preponderance of homes with multiple Christmas trees. At some houses there’s a tree for every window.

I find this bewildering, not because my house still lacks a tree in any window, but because it makes me think about the effort needed to get all the trees out of storage and to decorate them and then to de-decorate them and put it all away again—for every single tree in the house.

I’m not being critical. I really don’t mind at all. I’m just truly bewildered. I haven’t yet made the time to erect one tree, and yet some people have done it repeatedly.

When the kids were home at Thanksgiving, son-in-law Taylor said something about expecting to see the upside-down tree when he returned for Christmas. I suppose that might happen.

It started two or three years ago when the females of the house were vacationing in December and it was up to me to make the place Christmasy before they returned.

I envisioned a moving tree and I hung our spindly artificial embarrassment upside down, suspended by twine so it would swing. It’s really about the only thing that can be done with the tree; it looks a little pitiful standing right side up.

When I see it suspended, it gives the appearance of being uprooted, and that’s why I was thinking about it today when I read a food article called “Down Under.” It wasn’t about Australian cuisine, as I suspected. It’s about eating roots.

The writer, Jane Kramer, introduces the topic by suggesting that a vegetable worth its weight in daughters must be a dangerous vegetable indeed. She’s talking about a radishy-tasting taproot that the Germans call rapunzel. You remember the story of the girl with the long, golden hair—traded for roots.

Kramer next writes about the mandrake, with a root that has some resemblance to the human form. It’s said to scream with pain when it’s pulled from the ground, and the sound drives the digger crazy.

The first century Roman historian Flavius Josephus wrote that there’s only one safe way to harvest mandrake: Tie your dog to the plant and walk away. Let your dog suffer the consequences.

Kramer isn’t eating rapunzel and mandrake. She’s making friends with parsnip, rutabaga, turnip, celeriac and daikon radish.

Some root vegetables are classified as true roots (the taproot of the rutabaga) and others are storage roots such as the sweet potato. Modified stem roots include water chestnut, cattail and potato, while bulbs such as garlic and onion also make the cut, as far as botanists are concerned.

The mention of potato brings to mind some startling information from Kramer. Maybe the theological opposition to the potato is common knowledge to a student of religion, but I was totally surprised.

Early visitors to North America returned with potatoes after the Reformation when God-fearing vegetables were those that grew from seeds. Hard-working Christians raised their food through the sweat of their brow. They didn’t simply bury pieces of potato and wait a few months for them to grow. That was the “lazy root” or, as it was called in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Devil’s root.

Potatoes were something Catholics ate, and 200 years later when Ireland suffered through the great potato blight, well, tough luck because they brought it on themselves with their slothful agriculture.

Kramer tells that carrots were always purple until the 17th century when the Dutch introduced a new orange variety. She points out that the inferior yam hails from Africa and the mighty sweet potato comes from South America.

To really experience roots, I suppose you need to go out and try digging up some burdock. That should firmly connect you to the underground.

Kramer’s article has made it clear to me how I must decorate my up-rooted Christmas tree. I need festive strands of garlic and bulbs made of parsnip and red potato. A big daikon radish would look good on top (actually the bottom), and when the season is over, we’ll have the fixings for a wonderful New Year stew.

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